Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Michael P. Jeffries' "Thug Life"

Michael P. Jeffries is assistant professor of American studies at Wellesley College.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Thug Life features textual analysis of love and romance in hip-hop thug performances. In a sense, this section is tremendously misleading, because it is grounded in my interpretation of hip-hop. In fact, I use my textual analysis as a complement to the book’s major contribution, which is foregrounding the voices of everyday hip-hop fans, rather than artists, critics, and researchers like me. I went out and conducted one on one interviews with forty young men who identify themselves as popular hip-hop aficionados. Half of the sample identifies racially as white, and half of the sample is black. In the book, I analyze how race, gender, and class influence respondents’ definitions of hip-hop and interpretations of rap music.

Interviews point to important similarities and differences among the demographic groups, and reveal the contradiction and complexity within commercial hip-hop. This is how my textual analysis, on page 99 and elsewhere, is connected to the overall project, which intervenes on a reductionist conversation about what hip-hop is. On one hand, some folks defend hip-hop to the hilt, and romanticize its value to the point that they cannot earnestly engage its faults. On the other, critics with very little understanding of hip-hop often whip up moral panic, and mischaracterize the culture as nothing more than than sexist, hedonistic, pseudo-political posturing. Both interviews and my readings demonstrate popular hip-hop’s dissonance. In looking at love and romance within the thug genre on page 99, I am able to draw out some of these tensions. Love, the desire to be loved, and masculine vulnerability exist in the same universe as hip-hop performances that glorify violence, exploitation, and conspicuous consumption.

To understand not only why hip-hop is popular, but why it is meaningful to those who engage it on a daily basis, we have to go straight to the source: the fans themselves. In listening to these young men, it becomes impossible to dismiss hip-hop as pure hedonism or an empty fad. The best way to address hip-hop’s most troubling elements is to treat those who care about it with respect, and meet them on common ground.
Learn more about Thug Life at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue